February 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMN

The price of becoming a foreign ambassador

Watching John McCain set up a fellow senator like a bowling pin is a rare Washington pleasure. Even when he does it in Budapest.

A couple of weeks ago, McCain led a large congressional delegation to the Munich Security Conference — the Davos of defense ministers, international arms dealers, oil sheiks and angry Ukrainians. Before arriving in Munich, McCain, in the company of a handful of Senate and House members, made a four-hour visit to Budapest to meet with Hungary’s wily prime minister.

McCain also decided to hold a press conference with two dozen Hungarian journalists. I can’t prove the following assertion, but I suspect that McCain decided to meet the press in Budapest mainly so that the delegation would be asked questions about a woman named Colleen Bell.

Who is Colleen Bell? Bell is a soap opera producer — “The Bold and the Beautiful” is her masterwork — who was nominated by Barack Obama’s administration to serve as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Bell, one of Obama’s larger fundraising “bundlers,” bought this nomination with more than $500,000 of mostly other people’s money.

At her confirmation hearing , McCain asked Bell an exceedingly simple question: “What are our strategic interests in Hungary?”

Bell answered: “Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect the security, both — for both countries and for — and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.”

To which McCain replied, witheringly, “Great answer.”

Bell’s performance didn’t draw much media attention, mainly because she was blessed to be testifying that same day with the administration’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Norway, the Long Island hotelier George Tsunis, who didn’t seem to know that Norway is a monarchy, and who also called a party in Norway’s ruling coalition a “fringe” element given to spewing hatred. Tsunis, like Bell, and an unfortunately large number of other Obama nominees for ambassadorial slots in consequential countries, is also a bundler.

Tsunis became a bigger YouTube star than Bell, but not in Budapest. In Budapest, they’re highly interested in her. When a reporter, early in the press conference, asked McCain about Bell, a devilish smile played across his face.

“We’re very fortunate,” he said, “to have with us today the chairman of the committee that holds the hearings that these nominees come before, and that is Sen. Murphy, and he is very knowledgeable about these issues.”

McCain had set up a test for Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs. Would the senator tell the truth? Or would he defend the fiction that Bell was a qualified nominee?

Here is the answer that I hoped that Murphy would give: “Colleen Bell was nominated to serve as ambassador to Hungary not because she knows anything about Hungary, or about Europe, or NATO, or the democratic development of former Soviet satellite states, but because she raised just an ungodly amount of money for President Obama, and in our country, we have a bipartisan tradition of selling ambassadorships to vulgar people of great means.”

The alternate, less-obviously truthful, but still honest option facing Murphy was to say this: “The Obama administration nominated Colleen Bell to serve as ambassador to Hungary, so I suggest that you direct your questions about her qualifications to the White House.”

But what he actually told the press was both entirely predictable and wholly dispiriting: “I think Hungary and the bilateral relationship is going to be very well served by Colleen Bell’s arrival. Ms. Bell has had an extensive history of involvement with a number of very important causes in the United States. She has visited Budapest and Hungary, and I think she is going to be a very strong ambassador, and we look forward to coming back and working with her in the very near future.”

Jeffrey Goldberg writes for Bloomberg View.